Out of Turkey and through Bulgaria – Edirne, Plovdiv and Sofia

I went to Istanbul and in particular Edirne to revisit the greatest works of Mimar Sinan – Sinan the Architect – who built huge domes and other daring structures at the same time that Michelangelo was working on the dome of St Peter’s in the Vatican. (Begun in 1506, St Peter’s was redesigned from 1547 by Michelangelo (then in his seventies), and completed in 1626; its dome is nine metres wider than that of the Haghia Sophia, completed a thousand years before, but slightly smaller than those of the Pantheon – 1,400 years older! – and Neri and Brunelleschi’s great dome of the duomo of Florence, completed in 1436.)

Sinan was born in about 1489 and it’s worth noting that he was a janissary, ie not Turkish but probably born a Christian, perhaps in Shiroka Luka in Bulgaria’s Rhodope mountains, and taken away from his parents to join the Ottomans’ elite military force. He became a military engineer and in 1539 was appointed imperial architect, in charge of engineering projects across the Ottoman empire; he’s credited with designing over eighty major mosques, sixty madrasas (religious schools), 32 palaces, 17 hospices over the next half-century, as well as bridges, aqueducts, baths and other structures.

The Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul

In Istanbul I saw not just his sublime Süleymaniye Mosque (1550-57) but also the Kılıç Ali Pasha Complex (1580) and the imperial kitchens of the Topkapı Palace (rebuilt after a fire in 1578, and opened to the public in 2014, with displays on

The dome of the Süleymaniye Mosque – on four huge pillars, buttressed by half-domes

the food and medicines supplied to the sultan’s court). Sinan also added minarets and external buttress walls to the Haghia Sophia. I seem to have missed the Caferağa Madrasa (1559), just northwest of the Haghia Sophia, and the Sokollu Mehmed Pasha Mosque (1572), just north of the Little Haghia Sophia, as well as various others more out of the way – shame on me.

The Selimiye Mosque, Edirne
The dome of the Selimiye Mosque – supported by eight columns

Anyway, I then took a bus to Edirne, three hours west, which is dominated by Sinan’s true masterpiece, the Selimiye Mosque, built for Sultan Selim II in 1564-75. The high point of Ottoman architecture, he claimed that here he had finally achieved his goal of creating a dome larger than that of the Haghia Sophia (built in the sixth century, let’s not forget) – but in fact it’s only half a metre wider (31.28m) and higher (42m). Nevertheless, at the age of 80 (he died in 1588, somewhere around 99 years of age), he finally succeeded in creating a fully unified structure that provides a breathtaking sense of space beneath the seemingly weightless dome, decorated with glorious polychrome Iznik tiles. This is mirrored by the external stacking of volumes and the pencil-like minarets in counterpoint on the four corners.

Edirne was once the city of Hadrian (and is still known as Adrianople to the Greeks), although its present name comes from the Odrysi, the first Thracian ‘nation’, who built their capital Uskudama here. It was the second Ottoman capital, a century before they captured Istanbul, and it remained the sultans’ refuge whenever Istanbul was gripped by plague, and the base for their military campaigns west into Europe. It now stands just east of both the Bulgarian and Greek borders with Turkey and is a major transport hub on the routes from Istanbul to both countries. Bulgarians and Greeks come to Edirne for cheap shopping, while Turks cross to Svilengrad, the first town in Bulgaria, for wine, women and song. I’ve just read Kapka Kassabova’s Border, in which she writes rhapsodically about this, and about the Strandja mountains where Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece meet in a mysterious nexus of spiritual forces. Not quite your normal travel book, but fascinating. I was also thrilled to discover while writing this that it was published in the US by an old schoolfriend of mine – I hope it’s done well for them.

The Selimiye is indeed huge and breathtaking, but it’s hard to photograph internally due to the usual low-hanging chandeliers. Compared to the main mosques in Istanbul there are few tourists (and no barriers or separate entrances for tourists) and it’s delightfully relaxed, with locals chatting on their phones and indeed taking selfies. Incidentally, I was told that a letter left in a bottle by Sinan had been found in the 1990s, giving detailed instructions for repairs to the Selimiye mosque – he supposedly used an equation with no fewer than 13 unknowns in his design work. I visited two other old mosques in the centre of Edirne, which were even more relaxed and peaceful – the Eski Cami (Old Mosque, 1414), and the Üç Şerefeli Cami (‘the mosque of three galleries’, 1447).

Heading south from Edirne you’ll cross two old Ottoman bridges; heading west towards the border (see below) you’ll cross a new bridge over the River Tunca, with the old one (ripe for conversion to a cycleway) immediately south, and fifteenth-century mosques at either end. About a kilometre north, also on the west bank of the Tunca (reached by a bridge built in the 1550s), is the site of the Edirne Sarayi or sultans’ palace; built in 1450-75, it’s in ruins, thanks to an earthquake in 1753 and the wars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Alongside is the Beyazit II mosque and Darüşşifa or hospital and medical school, built in 1484-88; this was the origin of Trakya (Thrace) University, which has run a good museum of health and medicine there since 1997.

Moving on

When I arrived from Istanbul at Edirne’s bus station I was surprised to find that the only bus to Plovdiv in Bulgaria left at about 1am and took all night – in fact I now know that there are fairly frequent buses to the drab industrial town of Haskovo, between Svilengrad and Plovdiv, which would have provided a very easy connection. (I also noticed that Bulgarian road signs and distances were all to Sofia, with no mention of intermediate places such as Plovdiv.) In any case, it was a very easy border crossing – there are hourly minibuses from Edirne to Kapikule, which will drop you at the border, and less frequent ones on the far side (walk on and take an ad-hoc path left into Kapitan Andreevo) to Svilengrad, from where you can get a bus to Plovdiv.

Additionally, in June 2019 a new Plovdiv-Edirne train service started running on Saturdays and Sundays only, taking about 4 hours to cover the 180km, including time for border checks – this is slightly faster than the buses manage.

And so to Plovdiv – I came here a couple of times in the 1990s, when I was leading hiking trips in the amazing Bulgarian mountains, and I was keen to return when I heard that it was to be one of the two European Capitals of Culture for 2019. However as it turned out I got there a bit early – and with hindsight, the Orthodox Easter weekend was probably not likely to yield a lot of cultural activity anyway. Easter in Kraków in the early 1990s was similar – we’re going to church, never mind the tourists wanting to give us their money. I noted previously that Hull’s preparations to be Britain’s City of Culture 2017 were somewhat delayed, but they did seem more ambitious than Plovdiv’s. Košice seems to have put together a better legacy from being ECC. Anyway, a friend who visited Plovdiv a month or so after me assured me that it was all happening and the year should be a rip-roaring success (José Cura was due to sing Otelo in the Roman Theatre a few days ago, which must have been thrilling).

The Roman theatre remains as stunning as ever, as do the old town’s striking Bulgarian National Revival merchants’ houses, which house some great museums. There’s also an exciting long-term project to unearth the Roman stadium which lies beneath the pedestrianised main shopping street, Knyz Alexander I (or Alexander Battenberg) – built early in the second century AD under Hadrian, it was 240m long by 50m wide and held 30,000 spectators. There’s a 3D movie reconstruction of the stadium (ancient-stadium-plovdiv.eu), and the plan is to open up underground access beneath the H&M shop (yes, every high street is just the same these days…). In a separate project, the whole of the Central Square (a wasteland of communist concrete anyway) has been torn up for relaying and beautification, and the remains of the Roman forum can now be seen and indeed visited (free) on either side of the post office building. The Trakart (ie Thracian Art) NGO has a couple of small new museums displaying stunning recent finds of Thracian and Roman glass and ceramics, plus 160 square metres of Roman mosaic, still where it was created in the third or fourth century.

One hears far too much about the Kapana area, immediately north of the old town, and how it’s the equivalent of Hackney and Brooklyn – it really isn’t, but there are a few traffic-free streets now with some pleasant bars and cafés (some serving macarons, so very on trend). The Cat & Mouse bar (and co-working space) in Kapana stocks over 100 types of bottles beers from Bulgaria, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Serbia and the Czech Republic, as well as three of their own draught beers – rather oddly, they started early in 2017 with a blackberry ale, and then followed it with a pale ale and a session IPA. I don’t know which my friend was drinking, but it went down well on a hot day. Another decent local product is the Bavarian-style Hills Beer from the small town of Perushtica, near Plovdiv. I was drinking Stolichno amber pils, from Stara Zagora, which I also found refreshing on a hot day – they make Bock, Weiss and Pils beers as well. Stolichno is now owned by Heineken, but at least I managed to avoid the mass-market Kamenitza, brewed in Plovdiv since 1881 and now owned by Molson Coors.

Next, I had a couple of hours in Sofia, just long enough to ascertain that the promised new Regional History Museum has indeed opened in the former Central Mineral Baths (it was a Monday, it was closed, of course). As in Plovdiv, long-buried Roman remains are being opened up – the crossroads at the city centre are exactly where the centre of Roman Serdica was, and eight streets, a basilica, baths and other large buildings were discovered during construction of a metro station in 2010-12. Beneath the modern streets you can now walk along a stretch of the Decumanus Maximus, still lined with columns and sheltered beneath a modern bubble roof.

My vegan food correspondent (I’m sorry, I’m merely vegetarian) says he was very pleased to discover a city that reminds him of Zürich – ‘no skyscrapers in the centre, nice renovated houses, wide avenues, a great transport system with tramway and metro. The city is not noisy, there is a lot of space, it’s green, and there is a large central pedestrian zone leading to a large park.’ I’m not sure Zürich is the first place that comes to mind for me (no lake, no sky-high prices, no incomprehensible Schweeezerdutsch), but it’s a fair comparison.

He continues, ‘like in Istanbul, there is no real invasion of foreign food concepts or fast food. In all Sofia you can find only three Starbucks and only a few international fast food outlets. Pizza I think is the first choice here, you have more pizza shops than Donald Trump can tweet in a day. Farmer’s is one of the best places for a healthy bite – it serves fresh soups, salads, and sandwiches. I visited a great vegan restaurant called Edgy Veggy, very good food, great team.’ Another friend has recommended the Drekka coffee shop and the Vitamin B craft beer bar, which stocks bottled beers from all over the world as well as Bloody Muddy, from a small brewery in the mountains near Sliven, between Plovdiv and Burgas.

Finally, returning to Mimar Sinan – he left his mark here too, building the relatively small Banya-Bashi mosque, which was originally part of the natural hot baths complex – a plaque gives a date of 1576 but it seems it was already there in 1553.

Roman remains and the Banya-Bashi mosque, Sofia

Istanbul – almost in Turkey

I was last in Istanbul in the 1990s, apart from changing planes on my way home from Georgia, so I was expecting some changes. In fact, a friend who visits every few years told me that the rate of infrastructure improvement had been even greater in the last decade or so, so I was expecting really big changes… To be honest, I’m not sure how much has really changed. Yes, there are three suspension bridges across the Bosphorus (only one visible from the city) and tunnels under it, and metro lines (one with a station on a new bridge above the Golden Horn), but in other respects the city doesn’t seem to me to have been transformed – which is good and bad.

French-built trams passing putside the Sublime Porte

As Caesar might have said, All Byzantium is divided into three parts – simplifying hugely, there’s Sultanahmet, the touristy area south of the Golden Horn (or Haliç), where all the Roman ruins and the greatest mosques are; there’s Beyoğlu, the area north of the Golden Horn, traditionally home to foreigners and their business interests and now the arts and nightlife area; and there’s Üsküdar and Kadiköy on the Asian shore, which are purely Turkish and mellow (I stayed a couple of nights there and enjoyed it). And then there are all the suburbs, where up to 18 million people live, but actually no-one mentions them. Sultanhamet, it has to be said, has been transformed, with many roads traffic-free, a modern tramway crossing the Galata Bridge and going right past all the main sights, and with innumerable hordes of tourists. Get to Haghia Sophia by 09.00 unless you want to queue for an hour, just like in Paris and Florence. It is in fact pretty well managed – yes, the touristy restaurants are expensive, yes, there are lots of Hello-where-you-from? ‘guides’ trying to get your business, but they are very much confined to this area of the city. In the evenings this area is actually quieter than it was, with many backpackers and other tourists now staying in Taksim and elsewhere.

I was pleasantly surprised to see ring-necked parakeets in this area, just like the ones that enliven London and Surrey nowadays. Istanbul is full of hooded crows too; however, the most enjoyable birding is from the ferries, where you’ll see Yelkouan shearwaters (once thought to be the same as the Balearic shearwaters in the western Med, but now identified as a separate species) – they seem to nest to the south in the Sea of Marmara but commute along the Bosphorus to feed in the Black Sea. There are plenty of cormorants too, and alpine swifts.

A couple of months ago I found myself in a house with a television and took the chance to watch From Russia with Love, the Bond movie that’s set in Istanbul and on the Orient Express towards Trieste. In one scene Bond is taken down into ‘Constantine’s reservoir’ beneath the Russian consulate, which they can spy on through a former submarine periscope – this is actually the Basilica Cistern or Yerebatan Sarnici, built in the sixth century by the emperor Justinian (the film-makers presumably thought no-one would have heard of Justinian, or that there was a more obvious link between Constantine and the city of Constantinople). It covers 9,800 square metres (with 336 columns with proper carved capitals, just like a church), but was not measured properly until World War I, when a folding boat was borrowed from a German submarine. Open to tourists since 1987, it’s dark and crowded, but well worth a visit. (Naturally Bond stayed at the ‘Kristal Palas on the heights of Pera’ with its ‘old rope-and-gravity lift’ – a thinly disguised version of the Pera Palace, recently restored to its Orient Express glory but still with its marvellous old lift.) I’d also suggest dropping down to the old waterfront to see the Little Haghia Sophia church, built by Justinian I and Theodora from 527, a church with a dome 17m across that was probably a prototype for its big brother up the hill (which makes it the city’s oldest surviving Byzantine monument) and also for the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. It’s now a mosque but is easy to visit, beyond the basic requirement to dress decently and leave your shoes outside. And just inside the Topkapı Palace grounds, the Haghia Irene church is now open to visitors – it was second in size only to Haghia Sophia, but it’s much smaller and there’s nothing much to see inside (Haghia Sophia means Holy Wisdom and Haghia Irene means Holy Peace, but of course you knew that).

Across the Golden Horn, the Beyoğlu district is now known for the contemporary art galleries opening here (particularly in Karaköy, formerly known as Galata); this was the European quarter (originally known as Pera, meaning Across [the Golden Horn] in Greek), home to the Byzantine city’s large Greek population and then to embassies and foreign banks. I went to SALT Galata (mainly a library and café, a victory of style and marketing over substance) and the Yapikredi Kültür Sanat Yayincilik (good modern galleries above a bookshop) and also the Taksim Sanat Galerisi, an institutional exhibition space in the Taksim Square metro station – they’re ok, but it all still seems a bit provincial and insular. Overall, Istanbul is not really the world city it claims to be – signs, websites and indeed people are all a bit monolingual, and clear addresses and directions are a foreign concept – be sure to plan ahead online. It may well make sense to buy the Museum Pass, but you won’t be given a leaflet or a list of the sites for which it’s valid – even so, you can cover the cost just on the major Sultanahmet sites. On the other hand quite a few monuments are closed for restoration, which puts the city in the mainstream of European capitals.

Maybe the opening of Istanbul Modern (a Tate Modern wannabe), now under construction in Tophane alongside the big new GalataPort cruise terminal, will change things; if you go there, do pop across the road to see what’s on at the Tophane-i Amire Culture and Art Centre (run by the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University), an art gallery in a fifteenth-century cannon foundry.

Further up the hill in Beyoğlu is Taksim, a pretty anonymous modern area that is strangely popular with both Turks and many backpackers – yes, there’s a lively bar scene, but it’s really a bit of a rugby scrum and could be just about anywhere in the world (which may be part of the attraction). I’m told it’s changed fast since large numbers of migrants arrived from Syria and Iraq.

Food and drink

Happily, international restaurant/café chains have had very little impact here. My vegan food correspondent reports that he is a bit disappointed by the way veganism was trendy for about six months in 2018 but is now fading away; still, almost every eatery will have vegan options. The quintessential street food is nohutlu pilav, buttery rice with chickpeas (and optional chicken, hot peppers and ketchup), and I also saw a lot of mussels stuffed with rice being sold by street vendors. The beer is dull as dishwater – at least Gara Guzu (Black Sheep, in a local dialect – it should be Kara Kuzu) is trying, with its very adequate IPA, amber, red, black and blonde beers, but almost no-one seems to have heard of it. At least this is one place in the world where I can’t really sneer at hookah (nargileh) cafés as they are as authentic here as anywhere else. (It has to be noted, however, that the Turks don’t smoke cigarettes nearly as much as they did, which is a great blessing.)

Transport update

I arrived with Pegasus, the Turkish low-cost airline that flies from London Stansted (and, from July 2019, Manchester) to Sabiha Gokcen, Istanbul’s second airport, on the Asian side of the city. You might say that it’s its third airport, as Atatürk, the main international airport since 1953, was replaced in April 2019 by the new Istanbul Airport, the world’s largest with a capacity of 100 million passengers per year (and eventually double that) – but in September 2019 the new Beijing airport will open, also with a capacity of 100 million/year. My friend describes it as ‘mahoosive’ but well laid out; the rail link won’t open until late 2019 (continuing to Halkalı in 2020) but city buses go there and the new airport taxis are pretty good, he says.

Halkalı, 27km west of the city centre, is also the western terminal of the Marmaray Corridor, another major transport project completed in 2019 – a rail tunnel beneath the Bosphorus now links the two suburban lines along the coast of the Sea of Maramara, creating a 77km route that will bind the city’s two halves more closely together. Despite this, a road tunnel (opened in 2016) and the bridges, there’s still an unfeasibly large number of ferries jockeying for space as they link various points on the two shores – and a ferry ride remains one of the quintessential Istanbul experiences.

The Istanbul Kart is a rechargeable smart card that’s valid for travel on the city’s buses, trams, trains, metro, ferries and funiculars; it gives a 40% discount on fares, but there doesn’t seem to be a daily cap, unlike in London. It’s invaluable, but I struggled with the ticket machines which can refuse to take coins or give change for notes and fails to switch to English (likewise the website).

Political shenanigans

Turkey has a despicable government and leader, but one can’t blame Istanbul for that; the city, which generates 55% of Turkey’s exports, 60% of its imports and 16% of its jobs, stands for open and liberal attitudes against the authoritarian Islamism of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey since 2014. Born in Istanbul, he rose to public notice as the city’s mayor (1994-8) before becoming prime minister then president. The so-called coup attempt of July 2016 led to over 50,000 arrests and over 160,000 people losing their jobs, with the free media, academia and civil society being virtually closed down (Turkey no longer has any interest in joining the EU, whatever Johnson and Farage say, preferring links with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Russia instead).

Local elections in March 2019 were held against a background of economic recession and 20% inflation, but Erdoğan claimed the elections were about the country’s ‘survival’ and portrayed the opposition as ‘enemies of the state’. His AKP won 51% of the vote nationally but lost the cities of Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul – in Istanbul the almost unknown Ekrem İmamoğlu (running against a former prime minister) was leading by just 0.28% when the government stopped the count with 1% of ballot boxes still to be opened. Seventeen days later the government seemed to concede when İmamoğlu was allowed to take over the mayor’s office (although Erdoğan refused to shake his hand at an official function in Ankara). However, in May the government announced that the election in Istanbul would be run again on 23 June, supposedly because some electoral officials were not civil servants, some result papers had not been signed and tens of thousands of civil servants, sacked following the 2016 coup, should not have been allowed to vote; İmamoğlu was removed from office and the currency fell by more than 3%.

The increasingly dictatorial Erdoğan is determined to regain Istanbul, even doing the previously unthinkable and being vaguely nice to the Kurds to win a few votes from them. In which context I was delighted to see in April 2019 that France and Italy had finally recognised the Armenian genocide – the state’s attitude to this and to the Kurds has always been blatantly racist. Another friend is currently visiting Ani, the amazing ruined Armenian city just on the Turkish side of the border, and reports that the word ‘Armenian’ simply doesn’t appear on the information boards there.

In Istanbul the opposition seems unlikely to risk mass protests or a boycott of the re-run election, as the government would simply brand them as terrorists and arrest as many as possible; riot police and water cannon were stationed all over the city anyway when I was there in late April. With luck Erdoğan will turn out to have miscalculated and his actions will give İmamoğlu a more decisive victory in June – I will post a brief update here.

[24/6/19 – I’m glad to say that the re-run went very well for İmamoğlu, who took 54% of the vote, despite a barrage of AKP propaganda, and  is now established as mayor of Istanbul. Erdoğan’s aura of invincibility has definitely cracked, and there’s a sense that even his own party members are looking ahead to national elections and a post-Erdoğan era.]